Recently, I paid my first visit the newly opened Shanghai History Museum. Located in the former Shanghai Race Club building, which used to house an art museum and before that the Shanghai Library, it replaces the gaudy funhouse/museum that was located at the base of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Pudong Lujiazui.
Overall I was impressed with many aspects of the new museum and its collections, particular the ancient and early modern sections. And yet, in the end, unlike its predecessor, it fails to capture the cosmopolitanism of Shanghai in its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, and in this regard, I am afraid it will prove disappointing for many museum goers. The museum is now geared more to inculcate visitors on the importance of the city’s history to the great revolution of 1949 than to provide international and domestic visitors with a nostalgic recreation of the glories of the city’s treaty port past. Here is a brief rundown of what to expect and what to look for when visiting the museum.
Upon entering the museum from the main entrance door in the northern part of the building, one is confronted with a large wide screen on which a brief visual history of Shanghai from ancient times to 1949 is displayed in a continuous five-minute loop. The images are accompanied by a time marker indicating what period you are looking at at any time. Towards the end of the loop, one of the museum’s primary purposes is clearly revealed: to showcase Shanghai as a center of Red history and culture.
On another wall perpendicular to this display is an interactive display allowing visitors to tap into historical data including maps that also showcase the city’s development over the centuries. Another key message is revealed in these displays: That this is a city with deep roots in Chinese history and culture, not just a modern westernized metropolis that sprang out of a fishing village in the 19th century like Athena out of the head of Zeus, as some would have us believe. And in this regard, I applaud the museum for arranging the finest displays of ancient local and regional artifacts that I’ve ever seen.
The ancient section of the museum, in my opinion, is superb. Whereas the previous Shanghai History museum in Lujiazui gave short shrift to the ancient and murky origins of this water town, the new museum offers visitors an entire floor of artifacts carefully and beautifully displayed, diagrammed and labeled, in both English and Chinese. There are indeed some stunning artifacts in this collection, such as the Ivory Sceptre with Mythical Person and Animal Mask Pattern, excavated in the Qingpu district and representative of Liangzhu culture from around 4000 years ago. I had never seen anything like this in any museum of ancient Chinese artifacts.
Amidst the expected ritual clay vessels and other sundry objects, there are some other material artifacts worth noting such as a wood pile used for building sluice gates in the Yuan dynasty, indicating the sophistication of water control during that period, as well as a Stele of the South Shanghai Customs House from the Qing Dynasty. There are many examples of fine porcelain ware and fine silk and satin clothing indicating the high level of sophistication and consumption of this region during Ming and Qing times.
Another highlight of this section is the artwork, including a wonderful painting of German visitors to the Yu Garden in the late Qing Guangxu era, and a stunning portrait of the Ming official and intellectual Xu Guangqi, one of China’s earliest and most famous converts to Christianity. At the end of this section in the main hallway is an impressive model of a wooden sand junk or 沙船, used to navigate treacherous sand-filled waters in these parts of the Lower Yangzi River system. There is also a bronze bell made in the Tushawan orphanage in late Qing times, and another whopping Qing bell with a stylized bat atop it—bats are good luck symbols in traditional Chinese culture—which brings to mind the saying “bats in the belfry”. Some other features of what was soon to be modern Shanghai are also displayed including a gilded clock and a rickshaw—the quintessential symbol of colonialism in Asia.
One then heads upstairs to the modern section, while passing through the elegant main hallway of the old Race Club building, where you can still see design features of the original building such as the iron horse heads that decorate the stairway.
Upon entering the modern section, after passing through a hallway with a painting of the Bund that shifts from Qing times to the 20th century as one goes along, one is greeted by a gorgeous painting of the stately if aged figure of Chen Huacheng, an official from Fujian who bravely fought the foreign invaders in 1842, namely the British who were wrapping up the first opium war, and died for his country. The year 1842, in which the Treaty of Nanjing was signed to end the war and the British began to form their settlement at the muddy confluence of the Wusong (Suzhou) River and Huangpu River marks the beginning of Shanghai’s modern era.
The stele marking the boundaries of the growing foreign settlements are then prominently displayed along with vintage maps that show how the English Settlement (eventually International) and French Concession spread their tendrils deep into Chinese territory over time. Not satisfied with their original patches of land on what would become the Bund, these settlements built roads stretching westwards and eventually came to occupy those lands as well, swelling up over the next half century to dominate the city and totally overshadow the “old walled city” that dated back to Ming times.
There are large title deeds and appointments in both Chinese and English, but the highlight of this section is the colorful painting of the Roll of the Muster of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps. If you look closely enough in the backdrop behind the men on horses, you can see the names of the individuals who made up the SVC that defended the settlements from Chinese bandits and rebels. Amidst the maps in this area is also a model of the Cutty Sark tea clipper, which carried tea from China to England in the late 19th century.
We then enter into the treaty port era and into a section featuring various trades and industries that developed in Shanghai under ‘semi-colonial’ rule. These include oil and gas and cotton mills (factories arose after the Treaty of Shimonoseki ending the Sino-Japanese war in 1895 made them legal in Treaty ports in China). Also highlighted are the roles of the Jiangnan Arsenal and Shipbuilding Yard in contributing to China’s modernization drive as the Qing saw its last days and was eventually deposed by the Republic in 1911. The rise of new technologies including electricity and transportation are featured in the next section, and there are some interesting period illustrations showing the tram system and other features of the rising metropolis.
One notable item in this area is the colorful red banner with dragons for Shanghai’s St. John’s University founded in the late Qing era, showcasing the city’s role as a leading center for education in a new era of western learning.
Now we get to the sad part. The era of the 1920s-1930s, which ought to be the highlight of the entire museum, is relegated to a few display cabinets featuring material remnants (gowns, vinyl disks) and old photographs of the city’s notorious pleasures and sins—the prostitution quarters, the gangsters, the opera houses, the opium dens, the gambling halls and race courses, and the popular film and recording industry.
There is barely a mention of any of the westerners who made Shanghai the incredible cosmopolitan center it became during its heyday, from Sir Victor Sassoon who built the grandest hotel in the Far East (the Cathay, later dubbed the Peace Hotel under CCP rule), to Mario Paci, the Italian conductor of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra. It would seem from the museum’s displays that this was almost entirely a Chinese metropolis and that westerners were only there in the abstract as maps and ships and buildings and boundary stones rather than people with their own unique stories.
When I used to visit the old museum in the Pearl tower with my Chinese history students, I would remark to them that amidst all the fun—the gorgeous panoramas of street scenes, restaurants, bars, and opera houses—there was precious little on display about the political history of the city. It seemed that the politics had been stripped out of the Shanghai story, and instead all that was being memorialized were the fun bits.
Now it’s the opposite. There’s so much political narrative in the final section of the museum that it completely overshadows any other features of the city’s history. In the last few corridors we are led through a leftist interpretation of Shanghai’s past, featuring the intellectual and political figures who struggled against imperialism and supported the Communist revolution. We are given lessons in the May Fourth movement, the May Thirtieth Movement, the “white terror” of April 12 1927, and the anti-Japanese movements of the 1930s, culminating in the heroic struggle against the Japanese occupiers. On the one hand, as a historian I am glad to see that the political history of the city has been brought back into the museum. On the other hand, the museum now gives the visitor a very narrow view of Shanghai’s political history, and one that focuses on the leadup to the revolution of 1949. But of course, that is exactly what its designers and curators must have intended.
Fortunately, all is not lost, for the city itself is a wonderful museum, if you know where to look. Everywhere you go in Shanghai, at least in the Puxi side where the International Settlement and French Concession were located, there are reminders of the glorious if problematic legacy of Shanghai’s treaty port era, particularly its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s. While many of the buildings and neighborhoods constructed during that era have been knocked down in the re-building frenzy of the 1990s and beyond, enough still remain to give residents and visitors alike a glimpse at a bygone age of cosmopolitan splendor.
Of course you need to have some historical background of the city and of modern China in general to understand this as the buildings don’t always speak for themselves. But there are displays and mini-museums in some of them, e.g. the Park Hotel and the Peace Hotel as well as the Garden Hotel (formerly the French Club) and the recently closed Astor House, that tell the stories of the city’s pre-Liberation past and put westerners—yes, the imperialists and colonialists—back into the foreground of the picture. And there are also plenty of neighborhoods that preserve remnants and markers of the important Chinese revolutionary, leftist and Red history of the city, and its centrality to the great Chinese revolutionary movement of the early 20th century that culminated in 1949, when history, at least according to this museum, came to an end.